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[Review] Hansa

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Joined: 03/23/2011

A game has to have a "soul" for me to enjoy playing it. This "soul" is hard to define, I generically call it the "fun factor" - but it's necessary for a game to be played multiple times. A game may have great mechanics and be, on paper, a game that works well. Yet, if there is no desire to play the game again, or worse yet, the game receives the dreaded adjective "boring", then why play it? This is why New England fell flat for me. For myself, fun is more important than mechanics, and perhaps that's why I'm not too fond of Hansa (Uberplay, 2004 - Michael Schacht).

The ideas work well, the game plays smoothly, and I couldn't find any problems with it. In fact, some of the mechanics were innovative, and the game simulated buying and trading fairly well. It just wasn't interesting to me. When playing games of Hansa, I often found my mind wandering, thinking about the next games to play - never a good sign. And it's not as if I need yet another game about trading goods in ancient Europe! There was just nothing that screamed "play me"; the game appears to have appeal only to those who enjoy analytical struggles.

(Struggling not to talk about placing the board on the table…. ) Hansa includes good chips, with one to three barrels shown on them, and in one of six different colors. These chips are shuffled face down (one or two colors are removed from the game if less than four players are playing), and one is placed in each empty warehouse next to each city (one or two for each city.) The rest are placed in equal piles on five supply stacks. A merchant ship is placed at a central city - Copenhagen, and each player receives a large moneybag tile, in which they place three Talers (currency). Players also get fifteen market booths in their color (same as their moneybag tile). The rest of the money is placed in a bank, and players make their initial setup. Each player, in turn order, places two market booths and places them in a stack in any city except Copenhagen. This occurs three times, with players having stacks in three different cities. The game then begins, starting with the start player, and passing clockwise around the table.

On a player's turn, they take three Talers from the bank, and place them on their bag. The player will use these Talers on their turn basically as "action" points. The current player then checks the table to see if any empty warehouse is currently on the board and may fill them with the top goods from the first stack of face-down good markers. The player must pay one Taler to do this but may fill ALL the empty warehouses. The player then can perform different actions, using as many of them as they wish. The player may do these actions in any order but may only do one action in a city, and only in the city in which the ship is currently harbored.

The actions a player may take are:
- Move the ship: A player may pay one Taler and move the ship along a route (marked by a one way arrow) to another city. Each city has multiple routes leading from it to the other cities.
- Set up market booths: A player may build one to three booths in the city where the ship is, and instead of costing any Talers, the player must discard one Good marker they have face up in front of them that has at least as many barrels as booths put into the city.
- Purchase Goods: The player may pay one Taler to buy one of the goods in the city. They pay the money to the player with the most booths in the city (in case of ties, the bank gets the money; if the player has the majority, they get it for free).
- Sell Goods: The player may sell goods if they have BOTH a market booth in the city, and they have at least two goods marker of the same color. To sell the goods, the player removes a booth from the city and turns over the goods markers they are selling face down - a position they stay in for the remainder of the game. Once the player sells goods, each other player loses one good marker of the just-sold color.

After the player is done taking the actions they can/want to complete, they must make sure they only have 3 Talers and 3 face up Goods markers. If they have any extra, they must discard them. Play then passes to the player on their left. Play continues until a player decides to fill the empty warehouses, and they use some of the Goods from the last of the five stacks. The current round (up to the last player) is played out, and victory points are totaled. Each player gets one point for their face up goods markers and one point for each barrel on the face down goods markers (1-3 points). Players also get two points for every city they have a market booth in, and four points for each city they have a monopoly (the only player to have booths). The player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: Without a doubt, the wooden ship piece is the coolest in the game. While the wooden disc market place tokens are useful (odd colors, though: gray, yellow, purple, and white), and the cardboard tokens are of good quality, it's just fun to sail the ship around the board. The board, which is fairly easy to read - the arrows and cities stand out against the background - seems a bit drab, which certainly fits the theme of the game, but hurts the mood. I did enjoy the clever use of the money bag counters; they were not only a good place to store money, but also an easy recognition of what color each player was (frankly, though, I've rarely seen a player who has managed to get all of their booths on the board. The box is long but thin and is an easy one to store because of this).

2.) Rules: The full-color rulebook (with illustrations, hints, and examples) is laid out quite well - with a summary on the back, and basically explains the game in a simple, clear manner. The game isn't too hard to comprehend, but it's one that I have to show a couple things in action until players fully understand. Selling goods and setting up market booths aren't intuitive, but once explained, the game seems to work well with them.

3.) Strategy: One thing I can't argue against Hansa, and that is the game's system in allowing good strategies. While the ending is a little less varied than I'd like, it does allow players to try different tactics. During the game, should a player sell every good they can, or should they work hard to get as many market booths on the table as they can? In the games I've played, the points for having booths in cities were a deciding factor, yet many players get caught up in the buying and selling of goods. Having a monopoly of booths in a city is huge, and players must be careful not to allow this.

4.) Coins: I'm not sure I'm a fan of the coin system. It works well in the game mechanics but doesn't work very well theme-wise. If a player spends money to buy goods and spends money to move the ship, why don't they receive money when selling goods? Mechanically, I understand this; but when explaining the game I often get queries about this, and thematically, it's just not simple to explain. Still, if you can look past this oddity, it works well; and players have to be canny, knowing when to spend the extra coins. At first, each player essentially has six coins to use on their turn, but using more than three means fewer options on other turns. Yes, a player can get more coins from other players, but in the games I've played, it didn't happen all that often. Knowing when to use all six coins is a key to winning the game. If your opponent leaves the ship in a spot that you can get a lot done, then why not take advantage of that fact?

5.) Theme: Hansa joins a cadre of dozens of other trading games in olden days; and while the theme works, it's basically nonexistent. Players who need at least the hint of the theme won't enjoy this, because the game's mechanics simply don't fit well. The "bla" theme of the colors (with the exception of the good chips) doesn't help. An almost dreary feeling pervades the room when I have the game out.

6.) Fun Factor and Players: The game actually works fine with two players - it's probably my favorite way to play it (less downtime - quicker game). But honestly, the game just leaves me with such a bland taste in my mouth, that I really don't enjoy it much. Some players take too long deciding what to do on their turns (there's not much of a way in preparing, you don't know where the ship is going to start), and I just felt restless when playing.

I'm sure that there a lot of players who will really enjoy Hansa, as it is a fine game of analytical reasoning, and the mechanics seem to be flawless. But when you read people's comments on the game, the words "dry", "boring", and "bland" keep recurring. There's a reason for that, and that same reason keeps me from enjoying the game. Exciting mechanics, like in Maharaja, can help me ignore a nonexistent theme. Good, solid mechanics, like those in Hansa, don't. Many people will enjoy this dry, dusty game, just probably not with me.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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